Intelsat begins Galaxy fleet refresh with Orbital ATK satellite order

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WASHINGTON — Satellite fleet operator Intelsat kicked off the beginning of a partial constellation replenishment focused on replacing the company’s Galaxy line of satellites with a Jan. 8 order to Orbital ATK for the Galaxy-30 satellite.

Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK will build Galaxy-30 in anticipation of an early 2020 launch with a yet-to-be-named launch provider.

In a prepared statement, Intelsat’s senior vice president of space systems Ken Lee said the Galaxy-30 satellite “will be the 11th satellite Orbital ATK has built for Intelsat, and represents the first satellite in the Galaxy fleet replacement program.”

“Galaxy 30 demonstrates our commitment to our Galaxy cable distribution neighborhood, which has an unmatched penetration of headends in the U.S.” he said. “Our next-generation video distribution fleet will excel at traditional broadcast applications, such as ultra-high definition distribution while at the same time will be capable of supporting new network solutions for applications such as over-the- top video and other distribution requirements.”

Intelsat’s North America-focused satellites are all branded “Galaxy.” Most came from acquiring Loral Space and Communications’ North America fleet 2004 and PanAmSat and its fleet in 2006.

Galaxy-30 will carry a C-band payload for television broadcasts, along with Ku- and Ka-band capacity for broadband connectivity. It is the first new Galaxy satellite since 2005. Intelsat’s Galaxy fleet consists of 13 satellites, comprising roughly a quarter of the operator’s total constellation.

Intelsat in October mentioned that its next replacement cycle would be less costly than the EpicNG high-throughput satellite (HTS) constellation the company has been investing in since 2012.

“Our heavy investment phase related to our high-throughput satellites is now nearing completion,” Intelsat told investors Oct. 26. “The lower capital expenditures associated with our next replacement cycle are expected to support an improved cash flow profile and financial flexibility over the next several years.”

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler said in July that the company was in the early stages of planning three new satellites, which would include the start of a refresh for the operator’s North American fleet.

One factor playing into the payloads carried on those satellites will be the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s decision on C-band spectrum rights in the United States.

The FCC is reevaluating mid-band spectrum, which includes 500MHz of C-band spectrum predominantly used by Intelsat and competitor SES in the United States for television broadcasts. Intelsat, with Intel as a partner, proposed to the FCC what they called a market-based approach to the spectrum, whereby satellite operators would voluntarily clear out of some C-band frequencies so that fifth-generation mobile networks, or 5G, can use the spectrum without causing interference. Mobile networks desiring to use C-band spectrum for 5G would compensate satellite operators for the cost of relocating customers and lost business opportunities.

Fleet operator SES, who with Intelsat controls more than 90 percent of C-band in the U.S., told the FCC in November that Intelsat and Intel’s plan would require SES to buy and launch new C-band satellites at a cost of $150 million to $250 million each. SES estimated it has spent $2.8 billion already on C-band satellite capacity authorized for the U.S. market.

SES said it would only consider backing Intelsat and Intel’s plan if it does not open up the entire 500 MHz from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz. Without SES, Intelsat and Intel may face an uphill battle in seeking to realize their plan.

What the FCC decides on C-band usage will have a direct impact on telecommunications satellites designed to cover the U.S. and North America. FCC spokesperson Neil Grace told SpaceNews Jan. 8 that the agency is still reviewing comments and does not yet have an update on the timeline for a decision.